The New School administration has completely abandoned the progressive principles on which it was founded. Sidestepping demands from the community to declare The New School a sanctuary campus, the administration is engaging in widespread union-busting practices while shelling out millions for flagship buildings and fancy new fonts. With an ongoing occupation of the University Center cafeteria and an upcoming strike of the Student Employees at The New School — United Auto Workers (SENS-UAW), this is the first in a series of posts on Public Seminar that will provide dispatches from the picket line and situate issues at The New School within a larger context of social and political unrest.

But first, it’s helpful to see the current state of affairs at The New School in light of its own institutional history. The progressive history of the New School is far from an archival oddity; in fact, it is something the current administration continues to emphasize heavily in its branding. Nor is the tension between the university’s foundational history as a radical haven, and its present as an increasingly unapologetic corporate enterprise, new. The previous administration, led by Bob Kerrey, was an ongoing public relations nightmare — the university saw a highly visible series of clashes, including a faculty-wide vote of no confidence[1] in the president, and a student occupation broken up by helmeted police wielding batons and pepper spray[2]. David Van Zandt has sought to avoid a return to these modes of open hostility, emphasizing conciliatory rhetoric at every turn. Nonetheless, as we will see below, the actual decisions taken by his administration illustrate a very different reality.

From “A New Model for Adult Education” to administrative bloat

During World War I, faculty at Columbia university resigned to form a more progressive educational institution after others were censured by the Columbia administration for their anti-war stance. These intellectuals and educators founded The New School, then called the New School for Social Research, as an alternative educational institution where pressing issues could be debated without censure to “renovate democracy”.[3] The founding document also had a radical proposal for The New School’s administration:

Eliminate presidents and deans and the usual administration retinue and cut the overhead expenses to the minimum. Secure a sufficient endowment on the understanding that the greater part of the income shall be spent on research and education and the least possible amount on administration.[4]

Despite the originary mission of the university, President David Van Zandt is one of the top ten compensated university presidents in America.[5] In a story all too familiar in private higher education, but more stark in light of the New School’s original mission, the university has spent vast amounts on marketing, including a $353 million flagship campus on 5th avenue[6], and hiring expensive design studio Pentagram to redesign the university’s brand, instead of utilizing the incredible designers at the top-ranked[7] Parsons School of Design at The New School.

From the University in Exile to Sanctuary Campus

In 1933, when the Nazi government began purging German universities, then-New School President Alvin Johnson secured funding to bring 180 at-risk academics and their families (mostly Jews and political dissidents) to America, founding the University in Exile. Standing up against widespread anti-Semitism in well-established universities, this bold move introduced the ideas of important European thinkers to American academic thought, and publicly linking The New School to refugees’ search for safety.

History repeats itself as today we face the worst refugee crisis since WWII. With deep and ongoing upheaval in Syria and Central America, ongoing litigation of the Muslim travel ban, and ICE raids targeting undocumented immigrants for detention and deportation, many cities and university campuses are declaring themselves sanctuary spaces. Despite the legacy of the University in Exile, The New School administration rejected requests from Sanctuary Campus, a coalition of students, faculty, and staff at The New School[8]. As international students and faculty are a point of pride for the university, The New School has a responsibility to protect international students and workers by declaring the university a sanctuary campus and providing student workers, who may only work on-campus jobs, reasonable employment and a living wage.

From Marxist Enclave to Union Buster

The struggle of student workers for a living wage is not confined to the New School, but connects to a movement led by education workers around university campuses and public schools for unionization and better labor conditions. Across the country, academic workers are striking to push for better wages, working conditions and learning conditions for students. State-wide public school strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona have resulted in significant raises and contract gains. In higher education, an agreement was reached at University of Illinois — Champagne-Urbana after a 2-week strike[9], and the recent 6-day strike at Columbia put significant pressure on President Lee Bollinger to come to the negotiating table with Graduate Students of Columbia-United Auto Workers[10].

This is perhaps the front on which the New School has most embarrassingly contradicted its legacy. Earlier this semester, the university announced it would be bringing catering in house — which meant firing all cafeteria workers and “encouraging” them to re-apply for their old jobs without a union contract. In response, students occupied the cafeteria on the first of May with several demands, including the re-hiring of all cafeteria workers at equal or better pay and benefits[11]. After a multi-year year struggle for recognition (which the New School fought every step of the way, using expensive union-busting lawyers), student employees at The New School voted 502:2 to unionize with the United Auto Workers. Now nine months into bargaining, the administration continues to offer minuscule raises and benefits that would only be available to a small fraction of workers. Academic student workers of SENS-UAW are prepared to go on strike on May 8, with widespread support from faculty, fellow students, clerical workers, and cafeteria workers.

The New School continues to be a place where much is possible — but the current administration is failing miserably to live up to the promise of its founders’ ambitions. In the coming days we will be reporting from the picket lines, always with our eyes on the original mission of this university: to engage with the most pressing issues of the day.

By SENS-UAW Strike Committee

Contributing Authors: Zoe Carey, Oriol Vallès Codina


[1] New School Faculty Senate Votes No Confidence in President Bob Kerrey.” Chronicle of Higher Education(Dec. 10, 2008).

[2] Moynihan, Colin and Sewell Chan. “Police Arrest 22 at New School Building.” The New York Times. City Room: Blogging from the Five Boroughs (Apr. 10, 2009).

[3]New School for Social Research (New York, N.Y. : 1919-1997). A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science for Men and Women. circa 1918. New School Publicity Office records; Promotional publications, writings and fundraising materials. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive . Web. 05 May 2018.

[4]Ibid. p.11.

[5]Saul, Stephanie. “Big Jump in Million-Dollar Pay Packages for Private College Lenders.” The New York Times(Dec 10, 2017).

[6]Baldwin, William. “The Scary Economics of Higher Education.” Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan 15, 2013).